Marilyn Singer Shares Writing Advice: ‘Read, read, read and write, write, write’

By Maryann Yin Comment

Happy National Poetry Month! All throughout April, we interviewed poets about working in this digital age. To end the month, we spoke with writer Marilyn Singer.

Throughout her publishing career, Singer has written more than ninety books (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) for children and young-adults. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you publish your first book?
A: My very first published book was a prose picture book entitled The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t (Dutton, 1976). I had recently started attending the Writers Lab at Bank Street College and was encouraged to submit some of my stories to publishers. I was very, very lucky—an editor at Dutton accepted my manuscript within six months of my writing and submitting it. I wish I could say that things have gone as smoothly since then, but the writing business is one long, bumpy ride.

My first poetry book, Turtle in July (Macmillan), came thirteen years later. That book began as a prose picture book about a grandmother and a kid walking around a pond and looking at the animals, but it never worked. One day I got the idea that the book should be a collection of poems in the voices of animals, if they could speak English, for each month and season of the year. Again, I got lucky—Judith Whipple not only accepted it, but asked Jerry Pinkney to illustrate it. He’s brilliant!  Turtle in July was well-received and started me off on the happy (if also bumpy) road to poetry books.

Q: Has the Internet changed the way you interact with readers?
A: Well, I get e-mail now, which is nice and fast (though I do miss those handwritten letters, especially the ones with the drawings). Also, I have started to Skype with classes in schools around the country. I rarely do in-person visits at this point because of the prep and travel time and expenses involved, but Skype is a good and easy way to interact with some of my readers.

Q: Any tips for reading poetry out loud?
A: I firmly believe that poetry should be heard. To that end, I co-organized the Poetry Blast, a reading by children’s poets, at ALA and other conferences. On my web site, I list eleven tips for reading poetry out loud. The first three are:

1) Familiarize yourself with the poem. Read it silently and aloud to yourself several times. If it’s written in a particular form… get to know that form. Remember the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: Practice, practice, practice!

2)  Who’s the speaker of the poem?…What can you tell about this person, animal, creature? What kind of attitude and voice does he, she, or it have?

3)  What does the poem mean? What does the title tell you? There may be shades and levels of meaning, but a poem isn’t open to any old interpretation you throw at it. However, don’t always expect to understand it immediately—take your time with it.

Q: What advice can you share for aspiring poets?
A: It may sound corny, but I always tell aspiring poets to read, read, read and write, write, write. I also tell them to observe the world around them, using all of their senses, and to do so with wonder and humor. And I advise them to listen to words and sentences and to pay attention to the kind of music they have.

Once again, I direct folks to my web site, where I give Ten Tips for Writing Poetry.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: In 2010, my book Mirror Mirror (Penguin) came out. For it, I created a poetry form called the reverso, which is made up of two poems. You read the first down and it says one thing. Then you read it with the lines reversed and with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it says something completely different. This past February, my second book of reversos, Follow Follow (Penguin), was published. Both of these books are based on fairy tales. So now I’m working on my third book based on Greek myths.

This fall, I have a book of poems about our presidents, Rutherford B., Who Was He? coming out from Disney-Hyperion, and I recently finished a book of poems about social dances in the rhythms of the dances for Dial/Penguin. I really love writing poetry and challenging myself, so who knows what wacky idea I’ll have next? It’ll drive me crazy—and also be fun!